The Chicago Bulls went into Quicken Loans Arena on Monday night and walked out with a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Chicago picked up a 99-92 victory on the road.
Derrick Rose led the way for the Bulls with 25 points, five rebounds and five assists. Jimmy Butler continued his strong postseason with 20 points on 7-of-16 shooting. Pau Gasol was the biggest surprise of the night. He missed just six of his 16 field-goal attempts, scoring 21 points. He dissected the Cavaliers defense with his mid-range shooting.
On the other side, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving combined for 49 points on 19-of-45 shooting. Add in Iman Shumpert's 22 to that total, and the rest of the team contributed just 21 points. The Cavaliers obviously rely heavily on their star players, but the likes of James Jones, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion need to contribute some scoring for their team to have a chance in this series.
Of course, the biggest question heading into the game was how the Cavs would perform without Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. Love will miss the rest of the playoffs as he recovers from shoulder surgery, while Smith is suspended for Games 1 and 2 after his flagrant foul on Jae Crowder in the first round.
Both have been key contributors for Cleveland.
"If all things were equal and I had my choice, I'd love to see Kevin and J.R. out there, but that's not the case," Cavs head coach David Blatt said, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "We've known that now for the full eight-day period and we've been able to plan accordingly. With the situation as it is, I'm comfortable."
While the Cavaliers were unquestionably short-handed, the Bulls had the full complement of their starters. Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick noted those five players hadn't started together in any of the four regular-season games between Chicago and Cleveland:
More so than the absences of Love and Smith, rust really seemed to hamper the Cavs in the first quarter. They were completely out of rhythm on the offensive end and didn't switch very well on defense. As a result, the Bulls dropped 27 points on Cleveland in that period.
Nearly half of those points came from Mike Dunleavy, who started out 5-of-5 from the field, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group felt that Blatt's worst nightmares were coming true with the Cavs' poor start:
Things started turning around for the Cavaliers in the second quarter, mainly because Irving took over the game. He scored 14 in the second quarter alone, and at times, the Bulls simply had no answer for him. His layup to pull the Cavs within six points was a thing of beauty.
Although Chicago still owned a five-point edge, 49-44, going into the locker room, the momentum looked to be shifting to Cleveland.
The best thing that could've happened for the Bulls was the halftime break, as it allowed head coach Tom Thibodeau to tweak his game plan a bit. His second-half strategy featured lots of pick-and-rolls, which continued to give the Cavaliers massive headaches.
Earlier in the season, Cleveland suffered mightily when teams ran the pick-and-roll offense. Things improved with the arrival of Timofey Mozgov and the improved communication during the second half of the year. On Monday, they reverted to their old habits. The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto noted that lack of communication:
The third quarter saw the Bulls go on a 15-0 run after Irving tied it up at 53-53. Chicago was absolutely scorching from the field and on pace to have its second-best shooting performance of the season, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Although Cleveland mounted a small comeback, the Cavs were still down 11 points, 81-70, heading into the final frame.
Slowly but surely, the Cavaliers chipped away at the Bulls' lead in the fourth quarter. Chicago started cooling off from the field a bit, and Cleveland capitalized when Thibodeau sat Rose and Gasol for a short stretch. His insistence on keeping Joakim Noah on the floor also beggared belief. Noah contributed little on the offensive end and failed to offer resistance on the defensive end.
Cleveland narrowed the difference to just two points halfway through the fourth. J.E. Skeets of The Starters felt a fourth-quarter collapse would be a crushing blow that Chicago would feel throughout the rest of the series:
However, every time the Bulls needed a big bucket, they found it, be it from Butler, Rose, Gasol or somebody else. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers couldn't string enough defensive possessions together to take the lead.
This is a big win for Chicago, since the Cavs will never be easier to beat than in these first two games—barring another injury or suspension to a key player. Taking Game 1 is a major boost for the Bulls, who now own home-court advantage in the series.
The Cavaliers should improve once Smith returns, but ESPN's Bomani Jones questioned whether that's really a good thing:
It's too early to start labeling any game a must-win, but if the Cavs go behind 0-2 in the series, they could be in serious trouble. They'd have to win at least two games on the road and hope the supporting cast provides more help for James and Irving.
The Bulls might not shoot this well from the field again, but as long as they keep killing Cleveland on pick-and-rolls, it might not matter. For now, Chicago sits in the driver's seat in the series.